Chicago teachers kicked off what promises to be a week full of labor strife on Monday by striking, shutting down schools within the Chicago Public School system, and leaving 357,000 kids without a place to learn. The strike is the city’s first in 25 years, and was provoked by the city offering teachers a lower raise than they wanted.
The main point of contention is how much teachers should be paid. In a market economy, employees are paid what they contribute to a firm’s bottom line. If employees are underpaid, they will find better paying opportunities at other firms. If employees are overpaid, the firm will lose money and eventually go out of business.
The Chicago Public Schools and the teachers union are insulated from market signals which drive the decisions of every firm in the economy. Because they get their taxpayer money regardless of how well they accomplish their goal of educating students, the Chicago Public Schools lack incentives to educate students in the most cost effective and efficient way possible. Instead, we have a system where ever increasing amounts of money are sent to a system which produces, at best, stagnating results. Furthermore, any form of direct accountability is eliminated because parents do not have a direct say in how their education funding is spent.
In recent years, a new breed of school has begun to spring up nationwide outside of the purview of teachers unions. Charter schools, which receive public money only when families choose to send their children to them, meaning they must provide a higher quality education than both public schools and other charter schools if they wish to receive enough funding to remain solvent. Because the majority of teachers in charter schools are not members of the Chicago Teachers Union, the 52,000 students who attend charter schools are not seeing any disruption to their education.
While not a panacea, charter schools introduce elements of competition and accountability to the otherwise closed system. While much has been made about the outrageous demands of teachers who seem overpaid relative to the struggling populace they serve, it is not the amount that teachers are paid but their insulation from accountability that is at the root of the city’s public school problems.
By opposing reforms that are proven to help students, the Chicago Teacher’s Union has shown that they care more about their members than the students and the city they purport to serve. This should come as no surprise, as public sector unions are simply an interest group working to get as much as it can for its members. Unfortunately for Chicago, the city’s Democratic machine is so intertwined with the public sector unions that the unions are often negotiating against the people they helped elect, and are taken aback when somebody as radically anti-labor as Barack Obama’s former Chief of Staff stands up to them.